Why I don’t like textbooks

Our faculty is in the middle of what we call “Curriculum Development Week.” At the end of each semester, we get together to reflect on our teaching and program policies and look ahead to what changes need to be made. It’s three straight days of meetings, so it’s not exactly fun, but it is useful.

Today, we got on the subject of textbooks. The original topic was curriculum revision, but we got a little sidetracked. Like, a 90-minute derailment about how most of us love, but some of us vehemently hate textbooks. If you’re wondering, I fall into the “vehemently hate” category.

So, why do teachers love textbooks? Well, textbooks provide a lot of structure to a class. And, I think that’s it. I am not trying to belittle their argument at all: textbooks do provide a lot of structure to a class. I also think that’s really important. I team taught once with a teacher who basically just played a lot of games with his students and called it teaching. The students had fun, but whether they learned anything was arguable.

All the same, I hate textbooks. More specifically, I hate ESL textbooks targeted for adult learners. And here’s why:

1. The textbook never quite fits the class. I always wind up with a textbook slightly above or below the level of the students in the class. Textbooks are created to serve as general an audience as possible, so it’s inevitable that they will not perfectly fit any class. I, on the other hand, can bring in my own materials which will suit my class much better.

2. The themes are generic, and often cheesy. Every textbook has a chapter on family, sports, and hobbies. Students learn useless vocabulary like “stamp collecting” or “parasailing.” Look, I’ll admit this is not true of all textbooks. But I’ve been burned a few too many times.

3. Dear god, the audio files. Ah, the thrilling conversations between Yoshi and Jose, who both speak perfect American English, despite being from Japan and Argentina, respectively. They talk about their exciting weekend plans: Yoshi wants to go hiking, but Jose prefers to watch a movie. Compromise: hiking on Saturday and movie on Sunday!

4. The language is inauthentic. The reading textbook teaches students how to infer the meaning of unknown vocabulary from context clues. A useful skill, to be sure, but the textbook kindly provides ample context clues, making the definition painfully obvious. In reality, most texts we read don’t give us such helpful clues.

Writing textbooks teach students how to write various kinds of essays: definition essays, comparison/contrast essays, classification essays. Do you know how many classification essays I wrote in college? Not one. Ever. My “favorite” writing textbook provides a sample essay about the metaphorical power of an hourglass (Time is slipping away…). In what universe do the textbook writers live that my students will have to wax poetic for five pages about an hourglass?

Listening textbooks provide lecture samples that include “authentic English,” with the perfectly-rehearsed coughs, laughs and filler words. These “mistakes” don’t sound like mistakes. They sound like they were done on purpose, which they were.

5. Textbooks are boring. I should qualify that statement by saying that textbooks are boring to me. I find them inherently dull, even the decent ones. I don’t know how to make them interesting, so I don’t like using them. I do, however, like the YouTube videos I find or the interesting articles published in the school newspaper. I like the content that my students generate in the class, when a simple discussion of American education turns into a week’s worth of writing class lesson plans.

Now, let’s be clear, I don’t want to devalue what textbook writers do. What they do is important and really, really hard. I wouldn’t want to do it. I wouldn’t be any good at it. And I totally get why people cling to textbooks. It’s not just the teachers, students get a little freaked out when you don’t use a textbook. “How can I be learning if there’s no book?” But textbooks serve a valuable purpose. For some teachers, they provide a jumping off point, a framework to build an excellent class. That’s great.

What I find frustrating is the implication that because I don’t use a textbook, I don’t teach as well. No offense to the textbook writers/fans, but I think I teach a hell of a lot better without a textbook. Is it more work? Yes, a lot more work. And I enjoy it. Because I’m weird. But also because I know that I’m giving my students the best class I can. And isn’t that really everyone’s goal?

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3 thoughts on “Why I don’t like textbooks

  1. Very interesting. I’m kinda neutral about text books…kind of…I lean to your viewpoint but I doubt myself constantly and defer to the mighty coursebook writers who enjoy various paid junkets/air travel/conferences on the ESOL circuit, etc. (I’m a naughty boy and will not go very far.) I can’t imagine getting the better of them if they ask me to do better. I really like the new BBC Speakout series for example as they…only joking! However, the comment you made about what you enjoy using i.e youtube is important IMO because to me if you don’t like using certain material this will transmit to and affect the learners in some way. It can’t be hidden; they will suss you out as sure as night follows day. And that’s not good.

    • Yes, definitely agree with you. That’s always my frustration, too. If I use the textbook, the students will sense how much I dislike it and that will likely make them less motivated. If I don’t use the textbook, I’m a bad teacher in the eyes of many. I see using textbooks as a teaching style, and it’s just not my style. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Yes, the other main point is that just as many of the learners see that a course book is necessary they can accept a substitute of a handout as second best but as to no coursebook or handout!

    On Friday, I was told 2 mins before my regular class began, (elementary) that I would be teaching a higher level grammar class instead populated by Upper-Intermediate/Advanced learners. I sighed and then went to the new class. Apart from the fact that I didn’t know them and they didn’t now me and I didn’t know whether they had any advanced warning of their missing regular teacher, attempts by me to ask them to think about what they would like to study wasn’t very successful. I then asked the whether they’d want a handout on conditionals; it was like a weird slow motion art film: Yesssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss, they mouthed. Out came an activity from Thornbury’s Uncovering Grammar and all was quiet in the TESOL world. I sighed again. Good activity though. 🙂

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